How to Unravel the Myth That Freewriting is Messy

Let’s say you want to write an essay.

So you freewrite for twenty minutes, then you look back at what you have written, and you discover that it’s a rant about something completely unrelated to your essay. There are only a couple of sentences that pertain to your essay.

What should you do?

The bottom line is that you aren’t interested in writing your essay. The freewrite showed where your mind and heart really were.

One approach: freewrite to find an entrance into your subject material. Poke and prod and question yourself until you crack the shell between you and what you need to write about.

If you want to write about something, you can. Nothing needs to stand in your way.

But there is also a deeper truth here.

Freewriting is not always about writing a specific thing. It’s about sitting down or standing up and entering the flow state. Being present to what comes and shaping the moment into language.

It’s richer, more complex, more spontaneous than writing in the paint-by-numbers style that tends to get taught in schools.

Sometimes, though, when you make it a habit to color outside the lines, you wonder what the hell to do with it. Readers generally prefer writing that makes sense.

The ultimate approach: first be totally wild, then clean up

It’s easier than you think.

The model for this method has two parts:

  • be a crazy toddler during your freewrite. Just let everything happen.


  • show up as the grown up. Clean it all up and make repairs.

The first part is self explanatory. Write without stopping. Have the kind of party that everyone is invited to and you’re in charge of. It’s your birthday and you can have all the fun you want.

Then, when you’re done, it’s time for grown-up you to walk into the room.

Ah, what a mess! Let’s see, this goes here, that goes there, and this needs to be put away…

On and on.

You can reorder things… or you can simply title the chunks that are there in the freewrite. Attention tends to group itself into different movements with one dominant thing happening at a time. So, use the white space of the page to give breathing room between these different sections. And give them little headers or titles.

Feel free to delete the stuff that you know is truly worthless.

The big thing you want to be sure that you do before you end your writing session
is to give yourself some recapping, reorder things, put some headers there.

Structure things so that when you come back in later it’s neat and tidy.

OK, at least somewhat neat and tidy.

Otherwise, well, you know what it feels like to open up a document and see page after page of text that’s all over place. It can be nightmarish unless you’re like me and you actually find that kind of writing intriguing.

And even with sickos like me I still count my lucky stars when I open up a document and find that it’s already been organized. That way I can more easily find an entry point.

This is particularly true of a document that has been sitting there for awhile. If months or years pass and you have an unfinished document, it can be really hard to make sense of all those little moments where you thought to yourself “Oh, I’ll know what I meant to say here.” Maybe that was true for the remainder of the day that you wrote it, but after any stretch of time, you move on to other things and probably don’t have the foggiest notion. Even at best, your notion will still be foggier than if you had done a bit of reordering and commenting for yourself.

If anyone reading this happens to have done any work writing code, you know what I am referring to. It’s the difference between confronting a wall of code with vague variable names and no comments (or riddling ones) versus code with commenting that makes it easy for you to navigate and know how to make changes or repairs.

So leave comments. Title sections and subsections. That’s the gift to give yourself. Your future self, the one who will come back in later and smile with gratitude.

It can be as simple as a #comment in the next line or even just jots of plain text in the document body itself.

Or you can use different text colors and sizes and margin comments. If you’re using Scrivener, there are loads more options.

You can organize your freewrite as you go

This same technique can be done more or less during your freewrite. It doesn’t need to take you out of the flow. All you really need to do is, as you write, when it occurs to you that you are shifting focus, to label that section or add some meta-type comments before or after the section. Maybe you want to do this if you’re writing a novel and exploring the perspectives and backgrounds of different characters. You can label where one character begins and another ends. Sounds simple, and it is. And it makes it that much easier for you to navigate the document later.

Anything that can bring things away from the wall of impenetrable text and towards a sense of ordered parts will be a win here.

The more you do it, the more you develop your own pallet of organizational strategies that work for you with a minimum of fuss. No need to adhere to any organizational method as if it needs to be fixed and correct. Rather, my ideal is to see organizational strategies as familiar frames of reference for the vine of your freewrite to grow along and be supported by.

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